[Marxism] "Marx for Millennials"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 26 14:34:57 MST 2013

On 11/26/13 12:05 PM, CallMe Ishmael wrote:
> ======================================================================
> Rule #1: YOU MUST clip all extraneous text when replying to a message.
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> The Chronicle of Higher Ed recently published this article titled "Marx for
> Millennials":
> http://chronicle.com/article/Marx-for-Millennials/142963/
> It is, however, behind a paywall. If a comrade with access to it could
> either post the full text on this list or send it to me offlist, I'd be
> most grateful.

The Chronicle of Higher Education Review	

November 18, 2013
Marx for Millennials

By Andrew Seal

I saw the best minds of my generation recruited by McKinsey, Goldman 
Sachs, and Bridgewater. The rest of us became Marxists.

There have now been quite a few attempts to account for a sudden 
"resurgence" of Marxism—or at least a new openness to 
anticapitalism—among people of my generation. (A representative example, 
an article in Tablet, was subtitled "For those too young to remember the 
cold war but old enough to be trapped by the Great Recession, Marxism 
holds new appeal.") Given the dire economic times, especially for 
twenty- and thirtysomethings, some leftward shift was expected. But this 
recursion to Marx seems inexplicable, anachronistic, even cavalier. Why 
Marx? Why Marx now?

Common explanations go something like this: Those of us who reached 
intellectual maturity in the early and mid-2000s spent much of that time 
feeling adrift, politically torpid, uncompelled by the aging classics of 
the Theory Era, yet unable to generate anything distinctively new. Then 
came 2008 and the global financial crisis. The crisis brought to a head 
what had been whispering in the ears of millennials: a sense of 
permanent economic precariousness and a distrust of the political and 
economic remedies of our elders. We realized that we wouldn't escape, 
through pluck or individual merit, the gruesome combination of a 
desolate job market and a shredded social safety net.

We cast about for a coherent explanation of the crisis that might 
promise social and systemic remedies. Thus we turned to Marx, whose very 
unfashionableness, even illegitimacy, suddenly became a cardinal virtue.

But that is not exactly how it happened.

That there is a resurgence of Marxism is undeniable, although we should 
be more precise about what is resurgent, and why. A culturally oriented 
Western Marxism has been inescapable in universities; avoiding names 
like Gramsci, Adorno, Benjamin, Jameson in a humanities or 
social-science program would be like walking through Dublin without 
passing a pub. What is resurgent is therefore not Marxism per se but its 
more strictly economic texts and concepts; we are reading not just 
Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach" but Capital itself (even the dull second 

This revival of Marxist political economy seems to imply a turn away 
from the cultural emphases of scholarship inspired by Western Marxism 
and its French cousin, poststructuralism. Framed within a generational 
narrative, it is tempting to read this shift as a youthful impatience 
with the "merely cultural" concerns of race, gender, and sexuality, 
which are best set aside while confronting neoliberalism head on.

Yet such a drastic abandonment of the painstaking gains of a generation 
of scholarship on those cultural questions is less evident than one 
might think (though it is alarming to me that most Capital-quoters I 
have encountered are white men). There is indeed for us a sense of 
exhaustion of the old classics (Derrida, Ricoeur, and Baudrillard all 
died while I was in college), but it is the voice of these texts that is 
worn out, not their drive to break apart the invisible foundations of 
power and privilege.

The continuities between today's focus on political economy and the 
aging Theory Era, however, are often obscured by an exaggerated 
narrative of willful rediscovery of Marx, as if our inspirations are 
only our own intelligent resentment of the economy and the powers behind 
it. Let us not give ourselves too much credit: Marxism, especially its 
dense texts of political economy, is not a particularly inviting corpus 
for beginners, and to say that my generation rediscovered it is 
arrogant. We were introduced.

Few of these introductions occurred in the classroom. Instead, our 
introductions to Marxism typically took the form of breadcrumb trails: 
stray insights and leading references from an older generation of 
writers—for me, the critic Scott McLemee, as well as George Scialabba 
and Michael Bérubé, was particularly influential. (Also helpful was 
Verso Books, whose book list includes both the Western Marxist canon and 
many crucial works of Marxist economic theory.) But those writers did 
not so much lay out a coherent approach to Marxism as identify places 
where we could pick up the path. Self-initiated but far from 
self-sufficient, our education in Marxism was piecemeal, our learning 
curve jagged. Eventually, we would find each other and pool our breadcrumbs.

Some of the coverage of the Marxist resurgence has focused on the 
boomlet in Marxist-leaning journals, mostly based in New York, like n+1, 
The New Inquiry, and Jacobin (full disclosure: a number of my friends 
and I have written for those journals). But missing is how secondary 
those journals really are. Small in circulation, it is their social 
penumbra that earns them influence—particularly the interaction of their 
editors, contributors, and readers both online and in the flesh. It is 
as much the vigorous debates these journals inspire as their content 
that brings a vitality to Marxist discourse.

Because the Marxist revival seems, despite these strong 
intergenerational ties, so much a generational event, much has also been 
made of the absence of a cold-war consciousness among the new generation 
of Marxists, as if we are able to turn to Marx simply because we don't 
remember the Soviet bloc. Yet perhaps it is not our ignorance but new 
knowledge that spurs us on: As we move away from the cold war and 
further into the global war on terror, more and more accounts emerge of 
the violence inflicted by capitalist regimes across the globe. The 20th 
century now looks far less like a century of merely red terrors; there 
was more than enough white terror to go around.

Lastly, the financial crisis did help bring about the Marxist revival, 
but in a far more intimate manner than the popular narrative suggests. 
It wasn't a macroeconomic crisis that awakened us to the fact that 
capitalism had a few problems. For many of the young people who now read 
and write about Marx, especially the graduates of elite colleges, Wall 
Street was not merely an abstraction, but a place where many people we 
knew worked. In addition, nearly all private colleges (and many public 
universities) talk incessantly about—and constantly solicit for—their 
endowments, and investment bankers and hedge-fund managers routinely 
fill their trustee boards. Even apart from the enormous issue of student 
debt, to go to college today is to take a four-year course in the 
centrality of finance to our political, economic, and intellectual lives.

In the first volume of Capital, Marx invites his readers to follow him 
into the "hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us 
in the face 'No admittance except on business.'" For Marx, it was only 
by crossing that threshold that capitalism's inner workings could truly 
be understood; without that peek into the "hidden abode," the right 
questions could not even be formulated.

Marx was able to move past these signs of "No admittance" largely 
because of his friendship with Friedrich Engels, whose family held 
manufacturing concerns in both Germany and England. Could we then say 
that our friends who ended up on Wall Street, even our colleges 
themselves, were our Engels, the patrons of our glimpse into the "hidden 
abode" of finance? Perhaps those Goldman Sachs employees milling around 
our campuses recruited more than interns.

Andrew Seal is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at Yale University.

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